Academic study backs benefits
Better behaviour in the playground, a healthy eating tuckshop and a litter campaign are just three examples of what pupil councils can do for schools. Once a phenomenon of the most progressive establishments, these grass roots bodies are now widespread and affect the day-to-day life of schools around Scotland.
Staff have been helped to manage schools more effectively, thanks to pupil insights, pupils have taken greater responsibility in the life of the school, and their attitudes have improved.
So said a recent report by the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, undertaken for Fife, where over a third of the primary schools and two-thirds of secondaries have their own pupil councils. "Pupil councils are about active citizenship," says Tom Dobie, a QIE consultant and co-author with Professor John MacBeath of the report which involved 97 primary schools and 15 secondaries. "The study was a bold initiative which gave teeth to the personal and social education programme in Fife.
"Pupil councils adopt different structures. In Stirling they have taken things a stage further, and have a Joint Pupil Council for secondary schools and representatives attend the children's committee (the former education committee). It's all about promoting citizenship."
Councils are described in the report as a group of pupils elected by their peers and charged with the responsibility of representing the needs, interests, opinions and aspirations of all pupils within the school. They provide a forum for children to talk about issues that are important to them, a context for personal and social education and promote a sense of ownership in the life of the school community.
Pupil councils in Fife have taken part in a variety of initiatives. They have helped to devise codes of playground conduct, contributed ideas for catering arrangements, environmental improvements and reviews of dress code, and organised social events and charity work - one school raised Pounds 4,300 for local good causes.
But their main role has been in social, rather than educational issues. They are not involved in school development plans or timetabling, nor do they usually take to do with the running of the school on a day-to-day basis. "Perhaps educational issues could be given a higher profile in pupil councils, " suggests the report.
The achievements, however small, are evidently important to the pupils, and show that their views are being taken seriously. "All council representatives interviewed took their job seriously and expressed pride in representing the interests and aspirations of their peers, and bringing about change," says the report.
Crucial factors in the success of the pupil councils are the commitment of the headteacher and senior management team, co-operation and support of staff, and responsible attitudes of the pupils elected. The main problems are lack of time, varying staff commitment and an initial adverse experience of councils by pupils.